London's Garden Bridge: Boris Johnson's biggest mistake?

The garden bridge. Image: Heatherwick Studio.

John Biggs AM is Labour’s London Assembly budget spokesperson.

Boondoggle (noun): a folly of epic proportions and an aptly poetic, yet accurate, description of Boris’ latest vanity project.

For something which was initially only meant to cost taxpayers £4m, Boris Johnson’s Garden Bridge is certainly breaking records – though for all the wrong reasons. Already the public cost has rocketed to over £60m with another £3.5m of taxpayer money being set aside to underwrite the substantial running costs every year of its operation. All of this before a single brick, or the bridge equivalent, has even been laid. (Editor's note: The Garden Bridge Trust says the maintenance and operational cost of the bridge will be £2m a year.)

There’s no doubt the bridge is an architectural oddity which captures the imagination. As far as tourist attractions go it’s a winner. As a transport project, it’s totally useless.

The idea of a Garden Bridge is nothing new and in theory it sounds great. It’s when we get into the details that things get a bit murkier. Not only will the bridge cost taxpayers tens of millions to build, it will be closed at night, won’t have space for bicycles and could even require tolling to stop overcrowding. (Editor's note: The Garden Bridge Trust has denied the bridge will be tolled.)

Against this backdrop, it is hard to understand why we would be spending so much public transport money on the project. If it’s a worthy tourist attraction then we should treat it as such and explore other, more appropriate, funding streams. Investing taxpayers’ money, which is there to keep their tubes and buses moving, is a poor decision on Boris’ part, a sort of reverse Robin Hood economics – taking from the poor to prop up extravagant vanity projects.

When you look at Boris’ record as mayor he has form, dipping into public coffers for no end of pet projects, and telling porkies about how they would be funded. In the competition for Boris’ biggest boondoggle, there are many contenders.


Take the cycle hire scheme, the brainchild of the previous mayor and inherited by Boris. A great piece of modern infrastructure to be sure, but one which Boris pledged would operate at zero cost to the taxpayer.

In reality, thanks to the mayor’s failure to get good value from the original sponsorship contract with Barclays, it became the most heavily subsidised form of public transport in London. That’s not to say we shouldn’t support the cycle hire scheme, just that it could have been done more effectively and provided better value.

The Cable Car crossing linking North Greenwich to the Royal Docks is another contender for the title. Originally promised to be cost-neutral for taxpayers, it eventually meant the public purse stumping up £46m for construction costs. Now it has only four regular passengers and is in the main used by, you guessed it, tourists.

We won’t even go into the multi-million pound bounceway (a bizarre giant trampoline road once planned for the Southbank) – one even Boris Johnson was forced to accept was a step, or bounce, too far.

It was a similar story with Boris’ aborted Estuary Airport, a widely discredited project the Mayor spent over £5m on before it was finally put out to pasture.

The similarities in each of Boris’ pet projects are staggering; grand visions, promises of zero public investment and plentiful private sector sponsorship; all giving way to spiralling costs, public bail outs and serious questions about the benefits to real Londoners.

The consistent theme across all of these projects is the mayor’s idleness, announcing them to much fanfare then failing on the detail and fading into the background as they slowly unravel at taxpayer expense. He is,without a doubt, the rightful successor to Macavity, T.S. Eliot’s famous cat, who whenever something went wrong, wasn’t there.

But the Garden Bridge must ultimately scoop the prize for Boris’ biggest boondoggle, a folly of epic proportions.Construction alone will cost £60m of public money, £30m of which will come from TfL and £30m from the Treasury.

Having pledged “the maintenance cost will not be borne by the public sector” it was revealed earlier this year that the mayor has secretly agreed to underwrite the bridge’s £3.5m maintenance costs after Westminster Council threw doubt on the Garden Bridge Trust’s ability to raise the money.

People have rightly asked whether we could better spend the £60m public contribution on something else – the police, housing, bringing fares down – all the things Londoners consistently call for, all things Boris has cut – or in the case of fares put up 40% since becoming mayor.

Whilst there may be a place for a floral footbridge, the case for the Garden Bridge as a transport project is lost. By consistently trying to misdirect and muddle his way through Boris risks making the bridge his biggest boondoggle to date, even against all the other competition.

 John Biggs AM is Labour’s London Assembly budget spokesperson.

This article originally appeared on our sister site, the Staggers.

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.